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Ethical dilemmas in a changing world

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We live in an age of transformative scientific powers, capable of changing the very nature of the human species and radically remaking the planet itself. The disruptive nature of the new technologies is transforming society and reshaping our future.

 

Advances in information technologies and artificial intelligence are combining with advances in the biological sciences; including genetics, reproductive technologies, neuroscience, synthetic biology, as well as advances in the physical sciences to create awe-inspiring synergies – now recognized as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Technologies enable us to live longer, healthier, more fulfilling lives. Since the first Industrial
Revolution in particular, the development, commercialisation and diffusion of new technologies have vastly expanded opportunities for people around the world. They have
also generated riches, both quantitative and qualitative, for industries and societies.

Humankind is only just beginning to realise how technologies of the Fourth Industrial
Revolution are fundamentally challenging our ideas about the world and are able to bring
about undesirable externalities. This goes beyond headline-grabbing concerns about robots
taking jobs, cybersecurity disasters or existential threats from an artificial superintelligence.
However, whilst these new powers hold great promise for enhancing quality of life in many
ways, no technology is neutral and the powers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution certainly
are not.

The fact is, technologies already widely deployed are slowly fracturing social cohesion,
widening inequality and inexorably transforming everything, from global politics to personal
identities.

No one fully foresaw or intended these outcomes. However, they make it harder to deny that
the influence of these technologies on society reflects how they were developed and deployed. The recent debates about social media that exploits people’s vulnerabilities exemplifies how technologies embody the values and interests of their makers and how this
can impact us in potentially harmful ways.

As a result, there is a need for clearer articulation of ethical frameworks, normative standards and values-based governance models to help guide organisations in the development and use of these powerful tools in society, and to enable a human-centric
approach to development that goes beyond geographic and political boundaries.

Since these disruptive technologies will ultimately decide much of our future, it is deeply
irresponsible not to consider whether and how to deploy them. Towards this end there is
growing global recognition of the need for governance.

Professor Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, for example,
has called for “agile governance,” achieved through public-private collaborations among
business, government, science, academia and nongovernmental civic organizations.

Whatever forms this governance takes, we need to make sure that governing bodies and
public discussion address four critical questions. The answers to these questions will require both scientific input and a willingness to discuss the ethical and social implications of the choices we face.

A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Values and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, titled, ‘Connecting the Dots Between Values, Profit and
Purpose’, articulates three universal values: human dignity, common good and stewardship.

Furthermore, the Council included the need for ‘agreement on basic universal values and
ethics, consensus on the need to reflect these values in a country's legislation and regulation and international economic agreements’. In addition, the Commission asserted that Human rights are the ‘hard edge’ of values and an international human rights framework needs to provide a substantive basis for tackling these issues.

As a result, there is a need for clearer articulation of ethical frameworks, normative standards and values-based governance models to help guide organisations in the development and use of these powerful tools in society, and to enable a human-centric
approach to development that goes beyond geographic and political boundaries.

Therefore, a critical questioning of the processes of technological development becomes
imperative, asking, for example, what long-term future is wanted, and then how to orient
technological development towards achieving it. Technologies cannot decide for people what constitutes the good life.

The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development represents a step in this
direction. It recognises that technologies will play a role in whether the Sustainable
Development Goals are reached, and establishes a multi-stakeholder ‘Technology
Facilitation Mechanism’ to maximise the chances.

Other organisations such as the World Economic Forum is also pioneering a future-oriented
agenda – one that promotes responsible development and the adoption of new technologies, and drives a higher quality of life with greater public participation in how
technologies are employed, especially by taking seriously the roles of values and ethics in
technological development.

This makes it incumbent on leaders from multiple sectors to collectively guide the development and deployment of new technologies that will add further values, such as
environmental stewardship, the common good and human dignity.

In this context society and technology need to develop in tandem, with technologies shaping and embodying societal values with a human-centred approach to technological
development. This, in turn should identify the new tools, skills, partnerships and institutions
that are required to achieve transformative innovation. Consequently, innovation in
technologies should be inclusive and not widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. It
ought to facilitate technological advance in line with social progress.

In terms of social responsibility and ethics, all stakeholder groups have to benefit from this
approach. Governments can re-establish trust in their governance of technologies by better
aligning them with societal values. Industry leaders can hope to develop new markets,
attract new investment and create more positive engagement with customers. Civil society
can claim a role in shaping the preservation of rights and freedoms through the design of
societally aligned technologies. And citizens will have greater potential for self-realisation.

It is an ethically responsible thing to do. Technologies need to be seen as part of the solution to many complex global challenges in the 21st century. They are also capable of taking society forward in an inclusive, sustainable and positive way, if the right approach to their development is taken.

Indeed, there are other very important social values at stake, and they are often given short
shrift. First, we should commit to equity – to doing all that is possible to ensure that all
people, regardless of their economic means, will have access to technology’s benefits.
Secondly, even harder to talk about are values that have to do with ways of being in the
world, with how we humans relate to one another and to the natural environment. Thirdly,
values like stewardship and respect for the intrinsic worth of environment are often invisible
in our discussions or falsely framed as in opposition to economic development.

Underlying so many of these issues is the fundamental ethical question about how much we humans should intervene in changing the nature of our species, other species, and the
environment through technological innovation.

Finally, in a rapidly changing world, human technological intervention has to be guided by
ethical values and cherished virtues like living in harmony with nature, rather than in
domination over it. The future of our children depends upon it.

 

Paresh Soni is Associate Director for Research at the Management College of Southern Africa (MANCOSA) and writes in his personal capacity

Published in the DAILY NEWS on Wednesday, November 28 2018, page 9

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